Working with an Incompetent Colleague – When and How to Escalate

I was agonizing about what to do for weeks. I have dealt with incompetent co-workers before. Most of the time, I can make up for their incompetence fairly easily or at least work around it and not be affected. Not this time. This time, this colleague is a key partner to my work. If she or her team is not doing their job to the highest quality, neither I nor my team nor my program can be successful.

I have woken up multiple mornings, immediately worrying about what to do with this partner. I have worked with she and her team for six months already. In the first month, my leader already told me that this team may not be very good. I was optimistic then and said let me give it a go. Maybe this person just needed a benefit of the doubt and clear communications of our expectations.

incompetent colleague

Well, I was wrong. I tried various different ways of working with this partner for the next 5 months with no real improvements.

  • She doesn’t deliver what she promises – She would repeatedly promise to delivery something and then just not do it. There was always an excuse of why. Even after I or someone on my team followed up verbally and by email, there was still no follow through.
  • She and her team seem to be okay with low quality work – we were depending on her team for a critical piece of analysis. When we showed up to the meeting to hear their results, it was clear they haven’t actually met to fully understand the results. Many of our questions on the data could not be answered. Worse, one of their conclusions was clearly wrong based on the data they provided, but she nor the team noticed it until our team pointed it out.
  • She blames her team when something is wrong – On several occasions, we would follow up on something not done right. Instead of taking accountability, she would verbally or via email point the finger at one of her team members and ask them why they didn’t do it.
  • She offered no proactive help or thought leadership – Our team basically had to dictate everything we needed from she and her team, down to the Powerpoint format of the analysis.

I think you get the idea. We were spending hours doing follow up and pretty much her work. You may wonder why didn’t I just escalate the situation immediately? Well, it was not that easy politically or emotionally.

  • Our business group and this group had different leaders and different cultures.
  • Both my leader and I didn’t know the leader of this group well.
  • We had no idea how the other leader would receive this escalation.
  • I was also so upset at the situation that I wasn’t sure I could communicate objectively.

I realized after a few weeks though that escalation was inevitable and needed.

  • My team and I were getting burned out doing this partner and her team’s work.
  • Our work really couldn’t be succeessful without a strong partner in this department long term.
  • Our overall reputation was also getting damaged as this partner was also not delivering promised information to important outside partners with whom we do business. Those outside partners were now following up with my team to find out what was going on with this group

Here is what I did to escalate this issue

  1. Cleared it with my leader and aligned on options – I shared my recent experience and concerns and garnered her support to escalate. We also discussed options depending on the response. We were ready for multiple scenarios since we didn’t know how it would turn out.
  2. Identified an alternative partner in the same group that may do a better job – We were ready to hire our own resources for this work as worse case scenario. That would take a lot of work and may even break relationships with this group. That would not be ideal. Instead, I was fortunate to meet another resource in this same group that seemed to have a much more understanding of our needs and could be a better partner. It was a gamble, but anything was better than our current situation
  3. Wrote several draft of the escalation email and sent a draft to an outside friend for feedback – I was emotional about the situation so I knew my first few drafts were going to sound bitter or angry – neither of which would have been productive or professional. My friend who was disconnected from the situation gave me some great pointers and shared where my email sounded fine and where it need to be edited
  4. Wrote the final draft with the program and business risks as the focus vs including anything personal. This meant I shared
    1. Why I was reaching out and what was at stake for the business.
    2. What our expectations were from this partnership and why it was critical for the success of both group
    3. Provided examples why this partner was not delivering on the above.
    4. Ask for help and guidance.
  5. Scheduled a meeting that day with the leader to discuss – Personally I chose to send the email first and then set up the meeting. Some people would suggest to only do verbal meetings. I like sorting my thoughts out on email first.

Did I do everything right? Well, I am not sure there is one right way to do this. What I appreciated however was that I did it and I felt good about it. The leader in this group was actually quite sympathetic and helpful. It didn’t hurt that we already had an alternative resource in mind to at least try out, so we made it easy for him to say yes.

I no longer have to wake up and think about this issue – a huge blessing as worrying about work constantly sucks. Did the new partner work better? Definitely. It was well worth all the work and agony to escalate. I was ready to leave the job if this didn’t turn out well. That’s how bad it got. Did the old partner get fired? Ironically, she got promoted. C’est la vie. I didn’t care though as long as I didn’t have to work with her again. My goal was never to get her fired. My goals was to work with better partners who can help my team and the program succeed.

Your comments: Have you encountered this situation before? If so, what did you do that was similar or different? I look forward to your comments and questions

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